Monday, 11 July 2016

UCNC day 1

Another week, another conference.

I have moved from Cancun, Mexico, at the ALife conference, to Manchester, UK, for the conference on Unconventional Computation and Natural Computation (UCNC). It is very weird for me to be at a conference in the UK with “wrong way” jet lag!

The first day was a half day, starting with lunch – very civilised. The first talk was a tutorial from Jon Timmis on Swarm Robotics. This subject has multiple simple automomous robots working together with no global control, to produce an emergent behaviour and capability that none has individually. The tutorial covered the history of the subject, showing how some of the original constraints have become irrelevant: today’s “simple” robots are actually quite sophisticated compared to those at the discipline’s inception; and the original “nature inspiration” is no longer so prominent: use it if it helps, ignore it if it doesn’t. There are a couple of issues that make the subject difficult. The first is, how to design the local, individual robot rules that produce the desired emergent behaviour (and doesn’t produce undesired behaviours also)? This often reduces to an iterative design: suggest, test, refine, which can be automated in a search algorithm, such as an evolutionary search. This leads to the second issue: this search is most efficiently done in simulation, but there is a “reality gap” in simulation: the simulated physics is often too simplistic, leading to “overfitting” to the simulation and the solution then not working on the embodied physical robots. There are lots of fascinating results addressing these issues: the next challenge is moving this research out of the lab into the real world.

Then on to the technical session, with four talks. First up was my student, talking about using reservoir computing as an unconventional virtual machine for computing with carbon nanotubes: evolving the carbon nanotube system into a “good” reservoir, then training that reservoir to perform various tasks, rather than evolving the tasks directly. Next was another carbon nanotube talk, here having them in liquid crystal rather than frozen in polymer, allowing them to move to form clusters, to help their computational performance. The third talk changed tack, on to memristor logic. It appears that memristors natural support a ternary logic rather than the classical binary logic, and naturally implement different kinds of gates.  Finally, we had a talk that started with Zuse’s mechanical computer, and ended up with a “three cog, one gate” universal computer.

A great start to the conference.

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